Piano Practice

"Plunk, plunk, plunk, plaaaat... plunk, plunk, plunk, plaaaat.... Darn this stupid key!" my daughter, Molly, yells as she pounds her fist on the offending black note. I turn from my desk, where I am paying bills, and remind her that the piano she is practicing on cost us eight hundred dollars. I do not want it to be mistreated.

"Seven hundred," she corrects me.

"Well... with tax it was eight hundred," I correct her.

"No," she says firmly. "It was seven hundred."

I wonder why she feels so certain, when to my memory, she is wrong. Then I realize that she is so frustrated with her piano skills that she needs to be right about something.

"Maybe you're right," I say. "Besides, tax is not really part of the actual price of the piano. Since it only cost seven hundred, feel free to abuse it however you'd like. There are hammers down in the basement."

Molly giggles. Soon, I start to hear the plunks again. I like the sound of those plunks. It is not that they carry much musical quality yet. In fact, after about twenty minutes they can become even more annoying than paying our utility bills. But the fact that Molly's fingers are pressing piano keys means that she is focusing well, and that she is learning to play music. I don't hear the notes she is actually playing. I hear the concert she will one day give to a grand audience in some large auditorium.

I am dreaming. Worse than that, I am displacing my dreams onto my child. Deep down, I dearly wish that I was a professional musician. But that will never be. As a child, I took piano lessons for about three months. When I stopped practicing, my mom stopped paying for lessons. So I went outside to play touch football. I had a lot of fun. But now my knees are too weak for football. And I regret not spending more time as child learning to play music.

Determined not to let this happen to Molly, I began to pay her a dollar for each time she practices a full half hour. I explained to her that until she is good enough to really enjoy her own playing, the extra motivation would be useful. After about a year, she told me that she didn't need the money any more. She wanted to practice in order to learn to play, not to get money. That was music to my ears. But I continued to pay her nonetheless. I wasn't taking any chances.

Now we are bombarded with possibilities for extra curricular activities: horseback riding, martial arts, drama, art, dance, gymnastics, etc. They all sound good to both Molly and me, but if we tried to do them all, we would go crazy. So I am very aware of the power I have in choosing which activities to pursue. I take my cues from the level of interest Molly expresses. But I must admit my own priorities are added to the mix as well. I won't drive through cross town traffic to get to the dance class. And there is something about the prissy way those gymnasts hold their hands that turns me off.

While pondering the rightness or the wrongness of my role in determining Molly's pursuits in life, I notice the sound of plunks has stopped. I turn from my desk to see her sitting listlessly, her forehead resting on the keyboard. She is mumbling, "I can't do this...I can't do this." Her dreams of mastering piano are flagging. The promise of money isn't cutting it either. I get up and move to the piano bench and sit beside her. "Together?" I suggest. She raises her head. I begin to count and on the down beat we begin to plunk in harmony, two octaves apart. She still makes mistakes. But not as many as I do. When the half our is over, she gets a big kiss and a bunch of compliments. If I am going to foist my dreams upon her, I am going to have to put in my time as well.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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